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Coptic Cairo

The area known as Mari Girgis (Saint George) is centuries older than the Islamic city of Cairo. But even calling it Coptic Cairo isn’t entirely accurate, because it includes an important synagogue and, nearby, some significant mosques. Known from the ancient historians as the town of Babylon, it was here that the Roman emperor Trajan (AD 88–117) decided to build a fortress around the settlement. At a time when the Nile flowed 1,300 feet east of its current course and was connected by way of canal to the Red Sea, the fortress occupied a strategic location.

Tradition holds that Saint Mark brought Christianity to Egypt in the first century. The Christians of Egypt became the first in Africa to embrace the new faith, and they were persecuted harshly for it. Many fled to the desert or south to the Upper Nile Valley. Later, under the Byzantine emperors, the local Christian population—known as Copts (an Arabic derivative of the Greek word for Egypt)—came out of hiding and began building several churches within and around the town walls.

But harmony within the church was not to last; serious theological disputes about the unity of God (the Coptic view) versus the trinity of God (the Byzantine) arose between the Egyptians and Constantinople, and once again the Copts were threatened with persecution. So when the Arabs arrived across the desert, local Copts initially welcomed them as liberators from the tyranny of Byzantium, despite their religious differences. Fustat, the encampment that the Arabs established just outside the walls of Babylon, quickly grew into a major city, leaving the older town as an enclave for Christians and Jews.

Thus Coptic Cairo encompasses elements from all these eras: portions of the Roman fortress survive; within the walled city stand four churches, a convent, a monastery, and a synagogue that was originally a church; and the oldest mosque in Africa is nearby. The Coptic Museum has a collection of local Christian art that displays pharaonic, Hellenistic, and even Islamic influences. And there is a soothing quality to the neighborhood. In contrast to the big-city feel of Downtown Cairo, or the hustle of the al-Husayn area, Coptic Cairo is relatively quiet and calm.

The sites are generally open to visitors daily from 9 to 4. However, places of worship are not open to tourists during services: no mosque visits during Friday prayers (around noon), no church visits during Sunday services (7–10 am), and no temple visits Saturday. In churches it is customary to make a small contribution, either near the entrance or beside the votary candle stands.

POINTS OF INTEREST

MOSQUE OF ‘AMR IBN AL-AAS

Built in 642 following the conquest of Egypt, this was the first mosque on the African continent. Because the original structure probably had mud-brick walls and a palm-thatch roof, it did not survive for long. It was restored and expanded in 673 and again in 698, 710, 750, and 791. In 827, it was expanded to its current size. It has since been renovated at least five times, most recently in the late 1980s, in an attempt to restore its interior to its 827 appearance.

CONVENT OF SAINT GEORGE

This convent’s namesake holds a special place in the hearts of Copts. The remains of this Roman legionary who was martyred in Asia were brought to Egypt in the 12th century. Images of Saint George abound in Egyptian Christianity, and the most common depicts the saint on a steed crushing a dragon beneath him. So it should come as no surprise that within the walls of Babylon are a church, a monastery, and a convent dedicated to the dragon slayer.

The convent, while less impressive in its present-day form than in the past—medieval historians describe a huge complex—is still worth the visit. Enter the courtyard and take the stairway on the left down to a structure that dates from the Fatimid era. Inside is a huge reception hall with a beautiful wooden door about 23 feet tall. Behind the door, a shrine contains the icon of Saint George and a set of chains used for the chain-wrapping ritual (still practiced), said to represent the sufferings of Saint George at the hands of the Romans.

CHURCH OF SAINT SERGIUS

Known in Arabic as ‘Abu Serga, this church is dedicated to two Roman officers, Sergius and Bacchus, who were martyred in Syria in 303. It was a major pilgrimage destination for 19th-century European travelers because it was built over a cave where the Holy Family was said to have stayed the night during their flight from King Herod—a special ceremony is still held every June 1 to commemorate the event. Originally constructed in the 5th century, the church has been destroyed and rebuilt several times, including a major restoration during the Fatimid era. Reconstructions aside, it is considered to be the oldest church in Cairo and a model of early Coptic church design.

The entrance is down a flight of steps that leads to the side of the narthex, at the end of which is a baptistry. Look up at the ceiling of the nave; 24 marble pillars that were taken from an earlier site, possibly from the Ptolemaic era (304–30 BC), support a series of arched timbers.

Most of the church furnishings are modern replicas of older pieces. The originals can be found in the Coptic Museum, including pieces from a rosewood pulpit and the sanctuary canopy, considered to be one of the museum’s prized possessions. To the left of the sanctuary is the crypt in which the Holy Family is believed to have hidden.

CHURCH OF SAINT MERCURIUS

Yet another Roman legionary, Mercurius, or Abu Sayfayn (“of the two swords”), dreamed one night that an angel gave him a glowing sword and ordered him to use it to fight paganism. He converted to Christianity and was martyred in Palestine. His remains were brought to Cairo in the 15th century.

This site is of great importance to Coptic Christians. It was the cathedral church of Cairo, and when the seat of the Coptic Patriarch moved from Alexandria to Cairo, Saint Mercurius was the chosen location. The complex actually contains a monastery, a convent, and three churches: Abu Sayfayn, Abna Shenouda, and a church of the Virgin.

CHURCH OF SAINT BARBARA

Named for a young Nicodemian woman who was killed by her pagan father for converting, the church was originally dedicated to Sts. Cyrus and John (in Arabic, Abu Qir and Yuhanna, respectively), two martyrs from the city of Damanhour. It is said that when they refused to renounce their Christianity, they were shot with arrows, burned, and drawn and quartered, but would not die until they were beheaded.

The church was first built in 684, destroyed in the great fire of Fustat in 750, and then restored in the 11th century. Additions were made when the relics of Saint Barbara were brought here. The church is one of the largest in Cairo. Replete with the standard division of narthex, nave, side aisles, and three sanctuaries, the church is also considered one of the city’s finest.

The sanctuary screen currently in place is a 13th-century wooded piece inlaid with ivory—the original screen is in the Coptic Museum. The icons above the church’s screen include a newly restored Child Enthroned and a rare icon of Saint Barbara. A domed apse behind the main altar has seven steps decorated in bands of black, red, and white marble. To the left of the sanctuary is the chapel dedicated to Sts. Cyrus and John, a square structure with a nave, transept, two sanctuaries (one for each saint), and a baptistry.

Access to Coptic Cairo’s cemetery is through an iron gate to the left of the church.

BEN EZRA SYNAGOGUE

Originally the Church of Saint Michael, the synagogue is named after the 12th-century rabbi of Jerusalem who obtained permission to build a temple of worship on this location. According to the local Jewish community, now numbering about 50 families, this was the site of the temple built by the prophet Jeremiah. Some claim that Jeremiah is actually buried here beneath a miracle rock. Another legend associated with the area is that this was the location of a spring where the pharaoh’s daughter found the baby Moses.

Little differentiates the synagogue’s outside appearance from a church, save, of course, signs like the Star of David on the gate. Inside, a fine 12th-century bimah (pulpit in a synagogue), made of wood and mother-of-pearl, remains.

During the last restoration in the 1890s, it was discovered that medieval Jews used the site as a genizah (storage) for any documents on which the name of God was written (it is against Jewish law to destroy any such papers). Thus, all contracts, bills of sale, marriage licenses, and the like were placed in the genizah. Needless to say, this find was a treasure trove for medieval Middle Eastern historians. The synagogue is now a museum and is not used for services.